During the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) plenary in Seoul, South Korea, in the fall of 2004, regime members began debating prospects of China being accepted in to the MTCR. Due to the complexity of the issue and the diverse viewpoints of the participants, a decision was made to continue discussion and review China’s application at the next plenary.

However, a year later, at the September 2005 plenary meeting in Spain, the MTCR participants avoided active deliberations of the issue, thus indicating a view that there is only a remote chance of Beijing’s joining the regime.

Some might argue that admitting a space power and an active producer and exporter of rocket technologies into the exporters’ cartel would be a logical step. Then why has it not happened as of yet and why is it unlikely to happen in the near future?

There is no simple and terse answer to this question.


Apparently, the main obstacle that precludes China’s membership is the country’s irresponsible missile exports that have triggered U.S. sanctions a number of times, most recently in early 2005, after China formally applied for regime membership. MTCR is not just a group of nations with missile exporting capabilities; it is a club of responsible exporters, and as of today, China’s export control records do not warrant it a membership in this club.

There are serious doubts regarding the Chinese government’s political will to exercise strong export control enforcement. In each of the past three years, Beijing has made a number of political statements — issuing white papers and official regulations — condemning missile proliferation.

In December 2003, China issued its first white paper on non-proliferation, a comprehensive document on the country’s non-proliferation commitments and policies.

In December 2004, the Chinese government issued another white paper — China’s National Defense in 2004 — which stated that “China has adopted all international export control measures … and has stipulated corresponding penalties for breaches of laws and regulations,” and that “China’s nonproliferation export control measures are basically in conformity with the current international practices.”

With respect to controlling missile exports specifically, in August 2002, Beijing issued “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Export Control of Missiles and Missile-Related Items and Technologies,” which contained guidelines and the control list similar to those of the MTCR. Unfortunately, the realities of China’s policies contradict its official declarations. Chinese companies continue exporting technologies to missile programs in countries of proliferation concern, specifically Iran and Pakistan. Politically and economically, China is interested in developing close ties with Teh ran and Islamabad.

One may assume, that at some point China’s leaders have made a strategic costs and benefits decision to support Iran and Pakistan even if such support would trigger U.S. sanctions — a nd the United States has been lavishly imposing sanctions against Chinese entities.

From January 2001 through April 2005, the State Department has sanctioned foreign companies 115 times for irresponsible exports, and 80 of those sanctions were aimed at Chinese companies. Some Chinese companies, like North Industry Corp. and the Great Wall Industry Corp. , have been dubbed “serial proliferators” — they have been sanctioned over and over again but have continued exporting their sensitive products to problem countries.

Besides questionable political will, China’s export control system does not have adequate enforcement infrastructure and resources. Loosening up state control over the country’s business community has resulted in more economic freedom for enterprises. A growing number of profit-driven exporters, including those that export missile-related dual-use goods and technologies, pose a serious challenge for China’s licensing agency and customs.

For instance, the Export Control Division at the China’s Ministry of Commerce has only seven employees who license export of all dual-use goods and technologies pertaining to weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems.

The licensing institution’s capabilities to conduct end-use and end-user checks are rather limited, and post-shipment verifications are not conducted at all, thus increasing the risk of diversion and re-transfer of Chinese sensitive products to unauthorized users.

Chinese customs, as a nonproliferation export control component, also needs significant improvement. Many border posts don’t have equipment to detect transfers of controlled items, and most customs officers do not have adequate technical training with respect to missile-related dual-use items.

China’s inability to exercise effective export controls applies to both indigenous products and those foreign-supplied items that might potentially be re-exported. In this respect, top U.S. State Department officials point out that the U.S. government’s goal is to “implement the policy that ensures that U.S. exports to China … are not re-exported to other foreign government or terrorist weapon programs that are adverse to our interests.”

Security Concerns

Along with China’s reproachable export control records, security concerns are another factor that contributes to the U.S. reluctance to bring China into the MTCR . The official position of the U.S. government is that China’s military machine poses a threat to U.S. national security.

In his efforts to persuade the European Union not to lift its arms embargo against China, Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, clearly stated that the United States and the European Union “must align and strengthen our export control regimes, so that we can limit sales to China that put our [national security] interests at risk.”

Possible diversion of foreign-supplied dual-use equipment and technology to unauthorized military users within China is the major reason behind Washington’s restrictive policy towards exports with potential military applications. Should China become a full-fledged MTCR member, it would be entitled to the membership benefits, including participation in sensitive information exchanges and relaxed modes of rocket technology transfers among members.

The major concern in this respect is the possibility of high technologies transferred to China for its space launch vehicle program ending up in the military sector, thus contributing to undesirable improvements to its ICBMs.

China’s missile capabilities build-up is viewed as a serious threat to the U.S. national security. A successful flight-test of a submarine-launched JL-2 missile in mid-June 2005 contributed significantly to those worries. Deploying a missile with a range of up to 6,000 miles, which allows China, for the first time, to target portions of U.S. territory from operating areas near the Chinese coast, is a significant milestone in the Beijing’s strategic weapons program — and another reason to discourage the United States from transferring sensitive technologies to China.

The notorious Cox Commission report [“U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China,” which was chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and published in unclassified form in 1999] triggered the debates on how transfers of U.S. dual-use technologies to China as a part of the commercial space collaboration may be used by Chinese engineers for enhancing reliability of the ballistic missiles. These debates are still going on these days, and the U.S. Congress has not approved a single U.S. satellite sale to China since 1998.

Facilitating China

So what can Beijing and Washington do to facilitate China’s MTCR membership? What policy shifts and practical steps could the two countries make in order to overcome the impasse?

Radical policy changes in either country are unlikely in the near future. In the early 2000s, the Chinese government made a strategic decision to join international nonproliferation efforts by adapting its national export control norm to international standards, adhering to multilateral export control regimes and assisting in carrying out nonproliferation initiatives.

China argues that this significant policy shift has made it a responsible member of the international community fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and that the country’s export control system overall meets western standards. In response to these changes, Chinese leaders expect Western nations, particularly the United States, to begin viewing Beijing not as a part of the weapons of mass destruction proliferation problem, but as a part of the solution.

What the United States expects from China, however, is not changing the present official policy, but rather its practical implementation. Enforcement is the weakest link in China’s nonproliferation export control mechanism. Showing significant improvement in this area, or at least a willingness to make improvements, would benefit China’s export control reputation and increase its prospects of MTCR membership.

Adequately equipping hundreds of China’s customs clearance points and providing training for tens of thousands of customs officers and border guards will require a significant amount of time and resources. Meanwhile, the Chinese government could start with greater transparency on prosecuting export control violators. In the spring of 2004, China officially announced that it imposed administrative penalties against two Chinese companies for irresponsible missile-related exports. Although the names of the punished entities and details of the punishment were not announced, this very first public statement on prosecution of export control violators is a significant step toward transparency.

The Chinese government could go further and publicly announce imposition of penalties against companies that are subject to U.S. sanctions if they are proven guilty. Furthermore, China’s Ministry of Commerce could establish and update publicly available lists of irresponsible Chinese entities, similar to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Don’t Let This Happen To You!” publication .

The effect of demonstrating enforcement in action and government’s ability to prosecute violators will be two-fold . First, it will add credit to China as the aspirant to the MTCR, a regime which attaches significant importance to the enforcement on the national level. And second, it will serve as a warning to Chinese companies which are contemplating compromising export control compliance for financial profit.

For the U.S. government, to view China as an MTCR partner after viewing it for two decades as an MTCR target, is a big step, which it is unlikely to make in the near future.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council seemed to be rather open-minded when in March 1998 it proposed to extend space cooperation with China, issue a blanket presidential waiver on sanctions on U.S. satellite launches aboard Chinese rockets, and bring China into the MTCR in return for Beijing’s effective missile export controls.

The Bush administration, although officially defining its policy as “simultaneously engaging China in dialogue and pursuing aggressive imposition of sanctions where required,” seems to be leaning towards sticks rather than carrots.

Resolute response to unacceptable proliferation activities is undoubtedly needed. At the same time, along with pointing at China’s export control shortcomings, the U.S. government could more proactively assist the Chinese in strengthening such export control areas as legislation, licensing mechanism and enforcement.

Providing equipment and special training for Chinese customs officers and border guards could be one practical initiative to improve performance of Chinese export control enforcement agencies.

In June 2002, the departments of Commerce and State testified to the Congress that China-U.S. export control bilateral exchanges were very limited. The situation has not changed dramatically since then. China’s accession to the Nuclear Suppliers Group has triggered nuclear-related technical exchanges between the two countries. Missile export control bilateral exchanges, however, are close to non-existant.

China’s joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group in May 2004 was accompanied by heated debates about potential negative effects of Beijing’ membership in the consensus-based regime. Critics argued that China would become the regime’s “spoiler” and obstructionist. And yet, sixteen months of China’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group have not generated regrets from fellow members.

To the contrary, the Chinese government has demonstrated a rather high level of cooperation in the nuclear export control arena. With respect to the MTCR, strategically, it is counterproductive to keep an active manufacturer and exporter of missile technologies on the outside.

Instead of passively denying China’s accession to the regime on the grounds of inadequate missile export controls, all parties involved should be seeking ways to bring China’s export control policy and infrastructure to the acceptable level, which eventually will make China a valuable addition to the regime.

Victor Zaborsky is a senior researcher at the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia in Athens.